Neither candidate has a useful idea of how to craft energy policy

By Peter Z. Grossman

The Providence Journal

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

We've heard it all before. Over and over for most of the last 40 years.

From politicians of both parties, cliches and nonsense on energy. Take the biggest cliche of all: U.S. energy independence. The candidates are all for it. Mitt Romney says he'll make us independent by 2020, conveniently at the end of his second term. President Barack Obama says the route to energy independence is an "all-of-the-above" strategy and a "doubling-down" on renewables, especially if, as Obama has argued at various times, we have "Apollo" programs for new energy technologies.

These pronouncements are imprecise to the point of being meaningless.

Virtually any policy could be attached to the slogans, and their interminable restatement seems mainly an effort to produce a few uplifting sound bites on the evening news.

So Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are for U.S. energy independence.

How original! This has been proposed by, well, just about every politician since Richard Nixon. He came up with the idea in 1973 (to be achieved by 1980). Romney's only innovation is an eight-year time frame and he has called for "North American energy independence," to include Canada and Mexico, both major energy exporters. Nixon wanted independence in seven years, but since Gerald Ford, the standard energy independence time frame has been 10 years. When Ford's aides first looked into the matter, they felt their first goal was to redefine "independence" and their second was to redefine "10 years."

The pained effort to define energy independence has been ongoing. In the 1970s Nixon's (and Gerald Ford's) Treasury Secretary William Simon thought energy independence meant having diversified sources of oil supply. By that definition we've been energy independent for about 25 years.

I have no idea what Romney means by it, especially since he seems to want us to only be independent of such countries as Venezuela (at least under Hugo Chavez) and of the Middle East.

Of course, the simplest definition is one Nixon first used: We would only use energy supplies produced in and by the U.S. This is possible; we could forbid imported energy supplies. Period.

It would also be almost unspeakably stupid. It would mean, for example, if world energy prices were low, we would forcibly lower our standard of living and put American firms at a great competitive disadvantage by choosing expensive energy over cheaper. No doubt other nations would send us a "thank you." Complete energy self-sufficiency was tried in Romania under the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Ask any Romanian who lived through that time how well the experiment worked out; you won't get a recommendation.

A few politicians and pundits argue that our engagement in the global energy market does cost us. That is why we went to war, in 1991, most notably. But does anyone seriously believe the U.S. (the world's only military superpower) would just stand aside while the global economy fell to pieces because of a major disruption of the oil market?

Of course, Obama also touts energy independence on his campaign website along with a few new imprecise energy slogans.

"All-of-the-above," for example, could mean "anything-I-like-to the extent-I-like it." "Doubling-down" could mean spending twice as much money as we already have or just reinforcing some nebulous commitment with twice as much rhetoric, uttered twice as loudly.

Obama also has the burden of having spent billions of taxpayer dollars already on his fantasies of renewable energy "Apollo" programs, programs that were supposed to create millions of "green jobs." Like energy independence, as studies have shown, it's unclear just what constitutes a green job.

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